Honduras crisis casts shadow over Panamanian presidential inauguration

June 26, 2009

PANAMA CITY – Ricardo Martinelli was sworn into office as president of Panama Wednesday, offering his business savvy to steer the country toward a “free economy” and steady “the ideological pendulum of Latin America.”

A supermarket chain mogul, Martinelli is one of the last standing conservative leaders in a region in which “the ideological pendulum” has swung leftward.

Martinelli underscored that both he and his vice president, Juan Carlos Varela, are “two entrepreneurs” who have made an “incursion” in politics to “change the way things are done.”

“We´re going to take our experience in the private sector and put it to work where it´s never been seen: in government,” said the new president of Panama.

Martinelli is expected to raise police wages, implement monthly aid payments to the elderly and launch a subway system project in Panama City within hours after taking office, Economy Vice Minister Frank de Lima told Associated Press.

(For President Martinelli´s reception in the business community, click here: http://ticotimes.net/businessarchive/2009_05/051509.htm.)

Although a host of leaders from across the hemisphere attended Martinelli´s inauguration, the event was partly overshadowed by the presence of one leader in particular. Manuel Zelaya, the ousted president of Honduras, arrived in Panama Wednesday and announced he may stay longer than previously expected.

The tension has been building as Zelaya tours the Americas – first Costa Rica, then Nicaragua, the United States and now Panama – gathering support from world leaders and institutions along the way. Almost all are pressing the newly installed Honduran government to reinstate him. Zelaya initially said he´d return to Honduras on Thursday, in what was expected to create a showdown between Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, both of whom claim to be president of Honduras.

“Today I can´t leave Panama,” Zelaya told reporters. However, he said he is following the progress of the Honduran government in meeting the 72-hour deadline set by the General Assembly of the Organization of American States on Tuesday for Honduras to reinstate Zelaya as president.

Leaders at the inauguration reiterated statements urging the Honduran government to reverse the coup. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom said he´s willing to accompany Zelaya back to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, if necessary.

Meanwhile, Zelaya continued to issue presidential orders from Panama City. He attempted to sack two Honduran ambassadors, Roberto Flores in the United States and Ramón Custodio in Brussels for being “disloyal,” according to Beatriz Valle, Zelaya´s vice foreign minister. Both envoys have claimed Sunday´s operation in Honduras was not a coup.

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